09/19/2006, 00.00
JAPAN
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Shinzo Abe to inherit Koizumi's reformist mantle

by Pino Cazzaniga

Abe is set to succeed Koizumi as Liberal Democratic Party leader on Wednesday and then become Prime Minister. Many are hopeful he'll be able to work out Japan's main foreign policy tangle: relations with China and South Korea.

Tokyo (AsiaNews) – Japan's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) tomorrow will elected a new president to succeed 'rebel' Junichiro Koizumi. Since the LDP, in coalition with the Komeito Party, has an absolute majority in the Diet (parliament), its president becomes automatically the new prime minister.

As soon as the succession campaign got underway the race attracted public attention despite largely being a forgone conclusion. Shinzo Abe, 51, currently serving as chief cabinet secretary to Prime Minister Koizumi, is a shoo-in. His "adversaries—65-year-old Foreign Minister Taro Aso and 61-year-old Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki—have few chances to win but an important role to play, namely getting Abe to be forthcoming in saying what his plans are.

Abe is the man of the moment, an Asian diplomat said. Elected 13 years ago, he is the youngest of the three contenders and the one with the shortest political career, but he comes from an old political family. His maternal grand-father, Nobusuke Kishi, was industry minister from 1941 to 1945. Detained as a class-A war criminal he was released without trial and was able to make a political comeback that saw him become a top LDP leader and eventually Prime minister.

Abe's father, Shintaro, headed the party's main factions but illness and death in 1991 prevented him from reaching the top post.

Having inherited his father's mantle, now he is on the verge of fulfilling this ambition.

Policy-wise he has raised several eyebrows but many agree that he knows his stuff. A recent book—"Utsukushii kuni e" (Toward a Beautiful Country)—proves it.

In announcing his candidacy, Abe said that in getting into politics he was committed to helping ordinary people and wanted to make Japan a nation that was respected around the world and where children would be happy to be born.

All three candidates agree that September 20, when the LDP chooses its new leader, will be the beginning of a new era, paradoxically thanks to the outgoing leader, to Koizumi, a rebel with a cause, that of tearing down outmoded political and economic institutions. Now it is the time to rebuild from.

But Japan's troubled relations with China and South Korea top the list of issues to address if Japan is to become a nation respected in the world. In this area Koizumi's foreign policy has been an utter failure. For five years state visits between the two Asian giants have not taken place because of Koizumi's insistence of visiting the Yasukuni Shrine.

All three candidates to the LDP leadership agree that the issue must be tackled but differ in their means.

Dealing with China is best understood by looking at two past events and the documents related to them.

In 1972 when China and Japan normalised their relations, Chu En-lai said during a banquet in Beijing in honour of then Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka that "following the teachings of President Mao Tse-tung, the Chinese people has made a distinction between the militaristic elements of the Japanese people and the majority. The first are criminals, the second, their victims.2 On the basis of this principle, the two Asian powers have developed good relations and Japan has not been asked to pay war damages. But accepting the Chinese distinction between good and bad Japanese does imply recognising the aggressive nature of the Japanese invasion.

"As far as our relations with China are concerned, that was a war of aggression," said Tanigaki in a recent debate. With some nuances Aso agreed. But Abe did not. "I leave it to the historians to be the judge of history," he said. When nations normalise their relations, "what counts are the agreements they sign". And Sino-Japanese agreements do not mention any distinction between good and bad Japanese.

China's ambassador to Japan, Wang Yi, reacted immediately saying that the recognition of the responsibility of Class A war criminals marks the starting point in the normalisation of relations between the two countries. This is why China does not object to visits to Yasukuni Shrine per se, but to the presence of war criminals among those venerated there.

In 1995, 50th anniversary of the end of the war, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, a Socialist who headed a government with mostly LDP ministers, made a statement to the Diet on Japan's responsibilities in the war. He said: "During a certain period in the not too distant past, Japan, following a mistaken national policy, advanced along the road to war, only to ensnare the Japanese people in a fateful crisis, and, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations." Since then every prime minister, including Koizumi reaffirmed the statement. It is significant to note that Shinzo Abe did not show up in the Diet to vote on the resolution.

Still like his adversaries Abe, too, is very much aware that better relations with China and Korea are a priority. If he does become prime minister, and there is little doubt that he won't, his real intentions are likely to be gleaned when he travels to Vietnam this November for the annual APEC summit where he'll have the opportunity to meet Chinese President Hu Jintao and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun.

Foreign ministry officials have been working hard over the past several months to ensure that the meetings take place and with success.

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